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Israeli, PA health and environment ministers boost medical ties in rare meeting

Sides agree that Israel will recognize PA vaccination and that Gazans entering Israel for medical treatment will move through crossing via ambulance instead of walking

Meretz leader MK Nitzan Horowitz with MK Tamar Zandberg and Meretz party member Issawi Frej during a press conference of the Meretz party ahead of the upcoming elections, in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2021. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90
Meretz leader MK Nitzan Horowitz with MK Tamar Zandberg and Meretz party member Issawi Frej during a press conference of the Meretz party ahead of the upcoming elections, in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2021. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg held a rare meeting with their Palestinian Authority counterparts on Wednesday, Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed.

Such a high-level meeting of civilian officials has not happened for several years due to poor ties between Israel and the PA.

Wednesday’s sit-down at Jerusalem’s Hotel Yehuda was initiated by Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej, who has been seeking to renew long-dormant relations with the PA’s political echelon. Horowitz, Zandberg and Frej are all members of the left-wing Meretz party.

PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila said in a statement the the two sides agreed on a number of reforms during the meeting.

Palestinians vaccinated against the coronavirus in PA hospitals will now be recognized by Israel as immunized, al-Kaila said.

Additionally, Palestinians from Gaza seeking to enter Israel for medical treatment will no longer need to walk across no man’s land between PA and Israeli checkpoints; instead, they will be ferried by ambulance, according to al-Kaila.

Frej pledged that further meetings were in store between the two sides.

“It’s not just [those two]. There will be other meetings with the transportation ministers and the economy ministers. The process is continuing. There is goodwill and commitment on both sides. We are going to discuss civilian matters to the benefit of both sides,” Frej told The Times of Israel.

Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila (WAFA)

A spokesperson for Horowitz could not be reached for comment.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2017. During the intervening years, relations ground to a halt, and there were few public contacts between the two sides’ senior politicians.

But recent weeks have seen growing number of high-level contacts between Israel and the PA against the backdrop of the new Israeli government’s swearing-in last month.

At least six phone calls and meetings have been held between Jerusalem and Ramallah over the past few weeks. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev both spoke to Abbas once, and newly inaugurated President Isaac Herzog did so twice.

Frej, a veteran Arab Israeli politician Meretz party, is seeking to reinvent his office — which his predecessor Ofir Akunis (Likud) deemed “redundant” — to serve as a coordinating body between Israeli civilian politicians and their Palestinian counterparts.

“The deadlock in relations over the past ten years is unacceptable. You can’t have an agreement and security coordination and be someone’s neighbors — and at the same time ignore one another and have frozen relations,” Frej said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel in his Knesset office.

The new government’s left-wing and centrist ministers have shown an interest in shoring up the beleaguered Palestinian Authority. The more hawkish prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has not yet spoken to Abbas and opposes a renewal of negotiations toward a political settlement between the two sides.

However, he has indicated willingness to promote steps that improve economic relations and has not acted to block ministers from his government from reaching out to their Palestinian counterparts.

With the peace process with Israel on life support, Palestinians increasingly see Ramallah’s leadership as weak, corrupt, and unable to bring about an end to Israeli military rule in the West Bank.

What’s more, human rights groups have alleged that the PA is becoming increasingly authoritarian toward its own people. In recent months, the crackdown has tightened and PA security forces allegedly beat a dissident to death while in their custody, sparking widespread outrage.

In the aftermath of the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, the latter has seen a dramatic rise in popularity, ringing alarm bells in Jerusalem.

“The most desirable change in my view is to strengthen the Palestinian Authority as much as possible, and not to let Hamas be the one that sets the agenda, not in the area of the Gaza Strip nor in Gaza itself,” Gantz said in May.

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